A Tough New Job For Karen Hughes

Karen Hughes (search) says she realized it was time to give up her job as a TV reporter one day when she was alone in the southbound lane of a highway driving to cover a hurricane as thousands of her fellow Texans sat bumper-to-bumper in the northbound lanes trying to get away from it.

Hopefully, encountering storms won’t discourage her in her new job (subject to Senate confirmation) as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy (search). The position tends to be a tough one. And thankless. It’s considered an advisory position with no significant budget and no authority over public diplomacy personnel.

Small wonder that the position has sat vacant, off and on, for 25 months since President Bush took office. Or that its last two occupants, Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive considered a warm body by the administration, and Margaret Tutwiler, the former State Department spokesman, found it so frustrating they gave up and left.

And the job hasn’t gotten any easier. The PD office remains a bureaucracy in disarray, housed in a department that doesn’t want it. When Congress and the Clinton administration folded the U.S. Information Agency into the State Department in 1999, State devoured and scattered its personnel and bureaus.

Now, instead of crafting campaign messages — for which she has a knack — Hughes will have to leverage her influence with President Bush to clean up this botched merger at a time when challenges in foreign communication are perhaps their greatest since the beginning of the Cold War. At the same time, she will have to buck those in the administration who think effective public diplomacy amounts to repeating a slogan slowly and loudly enough until the audience “gets it.”

In fact, public diplomacy is only partly about message. Its core function is to promote U.S. interests and security through understanding, informing and influencing those in foreign countries and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad.

That entails:

—Giving timely news to foreign journalists.

—Providing information on U.S. values and policies directly to the people in other countries.

—Sponsoring scholarships and exchanges to the United States.

—Showcasing American arts.

—Transmitting balanced, independent news to captive people who have no information source independent of a repressive government.

A bevy of federal agencies — from State to the Department of Defense to the U.S. Agency for International Development (search) to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) — have roles in public diplomacy. Defense conducts information warfare. USAID programs help train foreign media. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) disseminates information on democratic governing. The BBG is supposed to broadcast balanced news and cultural programs through the Voice of America network and surrogates such as Radio Free Asia.

Since the Reagan administration, these agencies have come to operate in their own universes. But that has to end. Hughes must reach out to all of them and coordinate their efforts to reach audiences through multiple channels and build long-term relationships with those in other countries.

To do so, she must:

—Convince Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to give her full authority over PD personnel and assets at State. This means letting her attend to PD’s unique equipment and staffing needs, letting other communications officials evaluate its officers and returning scattered units to PD’s control.

—Urge the White House to establish a PD coordinator within the National Security Council to synchronize the activities of other related agencies with missions such as information warfare, media development and foreign broadcasting.

—Re-energize PD worldwide. Hughes must help counter the South American TV network established by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to spew anti-United States rhetoric around the clock. She also needs to beef up U.S. academic exchanges and foreign broadcasting in Latin America, both of which are at or near all-time lows.

Congress and many in the Clinton administration thought the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the need for PD. The Bush administration has been slow to revive it. Now it’s up to Hughes to drive into this storm and to get PD up and running again.

She definitely has the confidence of the president. And unlike everyone else who has taken a crack at it, she has the experience — thanks to those hurricanes.

Steve Johnson is a senior policy analyst and Helle Dale is the director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.